Whenever I go a-searching for used science fiction books I run across several by Philip Jose Farmer, but I could never find any in his “Wold Newton” series. The books I could find seemed to be all about space travel and other worlds, but his Steampunk books take place in the alternative past right here at home. I eventually had to order The Other Log of Phileas Fogg online, and I was so excited when the new edition arrived at my door, especially because of the sweet airship on the cover. I am sad to report though that the dirigible of the futuristic past does not actually make an appearance anywhere in the story, and that is only one of several letdowns about this book.
I expected this story to be written like a series of journal entries, but rather it is through the lens of an “expert” interpreting a secret journal and often correcting Verne’s story as much as adding missing pieces. But, one thing Farmer does do is give Fogg his missing back-story. According to this book Fogg was the foster son of an alien and learned special abilities, like the trick of controlling his negative emotions, that aid him on his trek and go a long way to explaining the enigmatic Fogg.
For the past two hundred years there has been a secret war waged between two competing alien species and it is being fought right below the noses of the human race. Both sides have lost the ability to reproduce because their numbers are so few and their females dead, so they take in human foster children like Fogg and Passepartout on one side and Detective Fix and Captain Nemo on the other. The aliens have advanced technology to aid their surrogates and according to Farmer this foreign machinery is the origin of Nemo’s Nautilus. Fogg’s dash around the planet has nothing to do with a wager, but is actually in pursuit of a teleportation device that both sides need for their (apparently same) plots of benign sublimation for the human race.
As I said in my review of the original Around the World in 80 Days (read it here), there are many gaps in Verne’s story that are begging to filled and Farmer was certainly endeavoring to do so. Unfortunately, his approach reminded me of the worst kind of fan fiction where a story gets nit-picked apart to such an extent that it stops being fun to read. For instance, Farmer makes a point of saying something should only take 5 minutes when it took Fogg 10, and harps on the fact that Verne never specifically mentions that Fogg carries a watch.
And then, rather than offering interesting explanations or insights from the “other log,” Farmer commits that cardinal writing sin: the rhetorical question. There are sometimes 6 or more in a row! Maybe this is just me, but I was always told that an author should never, ever do this even once without immediately answering it, and even then it is considered lazy writing. Farmer also makes a point of saying that the book is not a novel, but then writes long stretches of dialog that would never have been recorded in a diary and so have no place in the narrator’s interpretation. I also felt that giving all the credit of the technological advancements to the aliens was a disservice to Verne’s characters and the ingenuity of inventors during the Industrial Revolution.
So in the end, I don’t think I’d recommend this book any more than I would the original in terms of pure literary delight, but it is a great example of Steampunk and someone having fun with classic literature of the Victorian era.
Have you read any Philip Jose Farmer? What did you think?